Sunday, 15 February 2009

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

The Sunday’s central theme is forgiveness. In the Gospel, Mark gives us the first of the five objections raised by the Scribes and the Pharisees which was Christ claiming the authority to forgive sins. In the first reading, Isaiah tells the people that God will demonstrate anew his love for them and blot out their sins. Christ’s claim to forgive sins fulfilled that promise.

We know that the authority to forgive sins belongs to God alone. So, you can imagine the shock or the horror of the Scribes and the Pharisees at this Man’s action. Their objection was reasonable. “How could He?” Fortunately for us, there is no need for shock or horror. Instead, we are treated to yet another manifestation of Christ’s divinity.

In the healing of the paralytic, we catch a glimpse of the Jewish worldview. For them, there was a direct connexion between sin and sickness—sickness was the result of sin. Thus, to forgive a person was to start a person on the road to health. And to prove that He could forgive sins, Christ commanded the paralytic to pick up his stretcher and to walk home.

This connexion between sin and sickness needs some re-examination. There are many evidence that sicknesses are related to and spring from a mind or in some cases, a soul ill at ease. We call this connexion psychosomatic. I remember when I was younger, “spiritual directions” often triggered psychosomatic manifestation. My fellow novice can attest to that because we all had to see the Novice Master once every two weeks. When my turn came, I often had backaches. It was just psychological. Looking back then, I can laugh at it but at that time, it was terrible.

In medical science, the Placebo Effect is a good example linking how the brain thinks and how the body reacts. [1] Therefore, what the mind or the soul is, the body sometimes behaves accordingly. In this sense, the Jews were right. Sickness could be a manifestation of sin.

But, it is not always the case that there is a necessary connexion between sin and sickness because “seemingly” sane or healthy people are capable of sins we have never heard of. The mass killings of innocent people are good examples of “healthy” people who commit atrocious sins. Just because a person is healthy does not necessarily mean he or she has no sins. And on the contrary, we also have very ill people whom we know to be kind and good. These are the cases of “innocent” sufferings that prompt us to ask these usual questions: “Why, God? Why does a good person have to suffer the ravages of such a disease?”

In the curing of the paralytic, what is enough to note is that God forgives and Christ does so because He is God. What is relevant for Christian discipleship is that Christ exercises this forgiveness in the context of friendship and restoration of relationship.

Firstly, in the context of friendship, your man in question may have been paralysed. But, in reality, he was not so because he had friends who cared enough to hoist him up the roof and to lower him down into the place where Christ was. It was in response to their faith that Christ said to the paralytic, “My child, your sins are forgiven”. Friendship apparently plays an important role in the journey of forgiveness. True friendship is a part of the expression of faith. Often we think of faith as a personal “thing”. But, this idea of “me and Jesus” may be a manifestation of what is known as the “privatised” religion of “self-help” that runs counter to the “community”, otherwise known as the Church, the Body of Christ, the Communion of Saints which Christ came to establish. Have you ever wondered what has happened to so many of our youths in Sunday School or Confirmation fed upon this diet of “Me and Jesus”? I have asked Lifeline, Post-Confirmation to insert themselves into the community because the community of faith is where one is also nourished—in fact, the Eucharist we celebrate is an expression of this communion of faith. Therefore, no man or for that matter of speaking, no one is an island. Even the Carmelites Nuns, seemingly behind high walls, are part of this Communion of faith. The 4 friends of the paralytic, apart from the 12 whom Jesus called, are an appropriate expression of the Communion of Saints. Friends IN Christ ought to lead us TO Christ. Faith-filled friends mutually help each other leave the kingdom of sin for the Kingdom of God.

Secondly, in this healing of Christ we witness not just physical healing that took place but more than that. It was a restoration of relationship—pick up your stretcher and go home. The paralytic sent home meant he was restored to his family. This restoration challenges us today. We come to acknowledge the forgiveness of God. We are continually told that God is a forgiving one and we ourselves are invited to forgive one another. But what is forgiveness if not really a restoration of relationships? We remember the part that God is forgiving but conveniently forget the part which says “as we forgive those who sinned against us”. It is here that we search amongst the broken relationships in our family or community to see where and how we have closed ourselves to restoration. Is it not true that we often say, “I can forgive but I cannot forget” which could, in reality, mask a refusal to restore broken relationships. It is not easy. It is never meant to be easy because restoration often involves reopening of old wounds or remembering some past we want to forget. Some of us are tangled in the web of “you did this, you did that” and cannot see beyond the damage that unrestored relationships inflicts on us spiritually, mentally or physically. We know the tears of so many for whom their mind, body and soul are suffering because of the lack of desire or simply the inability to restore relationships that are broken. And regrets expressed at funerals are often too late.

Today, we rejoice that there are friendships that lead to greater freedom. We acknowledge and nourish them. We also ask God for help in restoring broken relationships which are necessary for our well-being so that like the paralytic, we may be freed from our past to walk into the fullness of Christ’s freedom just like John Paul II did in 1983 when he forgave and reconciled with Mehmet Ali Agca the man who tried to assassinate him in 1981.
[1] The placebo effect is a measurable, observable or felt improvement or behaviour not attributable to a medication or invasive treatment that has been administered.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Mark’s Gospel continues with another revelation of the divinity of Christ. Demons possessing a man knew the true identity of Christ as they shouted: “We know you are the Holy One of God”. This Holy One of God made a deep impression as He taught with authority in the synagogue.

His authority in word (teaching in the synagogue) and deed (driving out the demons) signals the beginning of the Messianic age where Satan’s reign is being curtailed. This exercise of authority is set within the context of service. Christ’s authority is always in the service of the Kingdom. We know this for sure when later in Mark’s Gospel two of the disciples asked for positions of power only to be met by Christ re-directing their passion or their desire to service. “The rulers of the world lord it over the people. But you rule by serving”.

This Sunday we ask what it means for Christians to speak and to act with authority.

We answer the question by first talking about acting with authority. We are familiar with “actions” that must be part of our discipleship. Jesus is the primary example of action on behalf of the poor, the widow and the orphaned. Today, He drove out the evil spirits. In the area of action, without a doubt, we excel. In a sense, we are an authority in the area of advocacy or action on behalf of the poor. No doubt we can do better but still, look at the many agencies of charity that is borne of Christian action. In fact, one of the comments heard post 2004 Tsunami was that many Christian aid agencies were the first to mobilise assistance to a region which was predominant of another religion. Our actions on behalf of God’s people cut across religious lines. But, charitable actions are not the preserve of Christians.

While we may excel at charity, what we may have failed to do is to make a stronger connexion between our conscience and our charity. If you like, it is not enough to be charitable because, as stated above, charity is not the preserve of Christian discipleship. What is required is that we speak with authority. This is where we might head into some difficulty.

It is not easy to speak with authority. In general, those in authority have abused their position of power. We experience doctors who are somewhat careless with their diagnosis or police rigging evidence to make a case. In this country, what is glaringly apparent are the ways many politicians have blatantly enriched themselves through the abuse of their authority. Failure of those in authority has turned the public to suspicion of authority in general.

The point is, many a times we dare not speak “with authority” because we have fractured consciences. This is evident as we tend to say, “Who am I to judge?” The attitude may be noble. But beyond this nobility what we actually encounter is a fear that we might not be “good” enough to judge. In some cases, we have taken the challenge of Jesus personally: “Let he who has no sin cast the first stone”. Again that might be noble, but, unfortunately, this may also mean that in most cases we have actually used our personal standard of morality as the criterion for judgement. It means that, “if I am not holy or good, I keep my mouth shut”. It is as if I, or what I am capable of, were the standard of morality.

When personal morality becomes the measure for our interaction, what is observable is a breakdown in civil and rational society because we fear someone who will say, “Who are you to judge me”. Just observe our “modern” neighbourhoods turning “polite”. Just as long as we are polite, that is acceptable. The fact is we are afraid. What happens is that truth becomes trapped in personality or rather truth becomes something which in its essence cannot be truly communicated in a rational manner. At a personal level, truth is about me—what I think or what I feel. And at the level of society, we know this to be happening when groups begin to lobby or take entrenched positions. When we begin to protect our personal interest or the interest of the group, race, religion or culture, then truth is the casualty. We can’t begin to approximate at truth when we are protecting our interest.

Today, as Christ spoke with authority, it is an invitation to return to morality. Morality is not just about doing things but rather a position of the heart. In the 2nd Reading, St Paul spoke of freedom from worry in the context of marriage. But the freedom he was referring to was really a freedom that arose from devotion to the Lord’s affairs. What is the Lord’s affair if it is not living up to the standards of God? Morality is a position of the human heart with regard to God. When there is a unity between God and the religious person, what follows is the freedom of authority. This is the basis for our discipleship.

What is definitely a challenge is for us to live up to a standard of personal responsibility that is beyond just the self. Credibility and consistency are necessary so that we can speak with authority. It is an authority that does not assert that God is on our side but rather proclaims that we are on God’s side; that we are devoted to God’s affairs. Otherwise, we will continue to act at best, with limited authority or at worst, on our own authority. What happens with limited authority is that we will begin to use fear or intimidation to bolster our already weakened authority. I am sure I don’t need to spell out where one can encounter this form of authority

We have no respect for that kind of authority. Thus, what is needed is the authority that comes with the freedom to stand before God with a conscience that is clear. It is not easy but neither is it impossible. We will fail but that is no reason to give up. We ask God because He is the source of that authority for both our speech and our action. We rely on His grace to narrow the gap between our word and our action. That is the pathway to authority of word and action.